Electricity from footfall - a first in Africa

Football analysts often talk about the distance covered by players in a field in a given match or competition. In a single match, all players could cover a huge distance. Imagine generating power from the kinetic energy produced when players run around the grounds as they play, run, or just when people walk on busy streets and into crowded buildings.

Meet Africa's first playground lit by means of power generated from footfall kinetic energy. In other words, when players, runners or other people step on the tiles installed on the ground, electricity is generated and it is used to light up the field. It means that the more players hustle for the goals, the brighter the light shines inside the pitch. Floodlights illuminate the football field in Lagos, Nigeria during the night, powered by a combination of electricity that comes from human movements and some solar arrays. The soccer pitch has 100 energy-harnessing tiles located beneath the artificial turf. Kinetic energy generated by people as they step on these tiles is converted to electricity and thus the name 'people-powered pitch'.

The whole system incorporates a battery array in such a way that it can produce power to light the field for 24 hours, day and night. UK-based Pavegen is the company behind the invention, while the Lagos project was made possible by a partnership between Shell and Akon, the Senegalese-American hip-hop star-turned-solar entrepreneur who has dedicated a lot of his efforts into Akon Lighting Africa project. According to Pavegen, each of these tiles can produce 7W of power each time it is stepped on or pressed.

The football lighting project in Lagos will benefit more than 10,000 student teachers according to Precious Okolobo, Shell's Media Relations Manager. They will use their first hand experience to inspire pupils towards such courses. The project could also expand to helping the whole community in future, even to the whole of Africa according to Akon.

“New, reliable and smarter energy solutions play a major role in driving human progress in Africa," said Akon.

"Projects like this innovative football pitch draw attention to the major opportunity that Nigeria as well as the whole of Africa have if we look to better harness new technologies and the continent’s abundant renewable energy resources.”

The product looks like a normal tile from the outside. Lifting the rubber or Astroturf reveals the circuitry. The tiles can be hooked to each other with the wiring that runs through each of them according to the company website. The top surface is made of 100% recycled rubber, from old truck tires and therefore, it doubles as a waste recycling project. Some base modules use 50-50 mix of virgin and recycled rubber. It can be used for indoor and outdoor environments.

It can also be interconnected with the national grid, such that the lights are powered from the mains when supply from the kinetic system falls below a certain level. When used to substitute national grid power, it can help save on power costs. It is excellent for powering fields in local regions where there is no national grid connectivity or where such grids are not reliable. The texture can be adjusted to make it useful in high-end retail, transport and public realm works. Besides, testing has revealed that it can withstand over 20 million footsteps and extreme weather according to Pavegen website. For instance, it is resistant to water in that it can work while submerged into water at a depth of 1.5m.

It is a smart system in that it also communicates a variety of data to external devices. It relays data about itself and behavior as it is being stepped on or pressed, so it is easy to monitor and control. In addition to allowing connectivity with the surrounding devices, the system transmits data that can help in football match analysis in real time (thus it can help in media-related analysis tasks). It also relays information on pedestrian movements and social media updates. Thus the system can offer insights about people movement and can be linked to traffic management systems. Finally, it is a solution, of course, that could contribute in helping the world move to low-carbon energy solutions.

“When you stand on a tile, it sends out wireless data. This is useful for crowd flow modeling – seeing how people move through cities," Kemball-Cook told The Guardian. "You can use it to control lighting more efficiently. It’s also a really key way for retailers to know how many people are visiting their shops. We imagine Google will cover streets with this in the future and use the data in interesting ways.”

Laurence Kemball-Cook, the brain behind Pavegen and the company's CEO and Founder came up with the idea after meeting some challenges in street lighting. The First Class Honors graduate of Industrial Design & Technology from Loughborough University was once given a job to power some street lighting using solar and wind energy but there was no way of accomplishing that due to the eminent shade - he had to come up with a way out.

“My idea was a floor tile that would convert the kinetic energy from a footstep into electricity,” he says. “Every time someone steps on the tile, they generate seven watts of power. The energy is stored within batteries, and then used to power lighting when it’s needed. It’s an off-grid power source for cities.”

Although it took some times for the idea to be accepted, he has worked with companies such as Coca-Cola, Samsung, Siemens and Westfield. The company is now established in South Korea, Japan and Australia and is setting offices in United States. The solutions are already benefiting people in 100 locations in 30 countries around the globe.

In 2014, Shell partnered with Pavegen and the Brazilian soccer legend Pelé to install 200 tiles on the floor of a redeveloped community field in Morro da Mineira in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - a project that gave birth to the world’s first people-powered pitch. The solution is also being used to power LED bench lighting and USB charging stations in various high-foot traffic spots such as the Harrods department store and Heathrow Airport in London, Webster University in Missouri, and a train station in Saint Omer, France. They have also installed the products at the World Economic Forum with Nike Grind.

Morro da Mineira in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Image Credit: Edelman PR)

They recently installed 68 tiles in Johannesburg and are targeting at extending the reach, said Kemball while launching the pitch in Nigeria.

"We’re hoping to install our technology across the African region one day, having also worked with Samsung in Johannesburg earlier this year," said Pavegen CEO and Founder Laurence Kemball-Cook.

The challenge of producing the tiles is immense given the industry never existed before, plus a lot of time and investment it takes, according to the innovator. It costs around $1,800 USD to cover one square meter of a ground with the tile product.

Growth of alternative energy solutions has accelerated in the recent period, and they will play a crucial role in developing countries who are hunting for power to support economic growth. While it might take time to see this system becoming more popular in developing countries, it can help advance the renewable energy agenda. The footfall-energy innovation is an example of how people from different fields can come together to accelerate adoption of such innovation. Shell’s accelerator programs LiveWIRE and Springboard were very crucial in making the footfall-energy innovation business viable.

Pavegen hopes to secure new partnerships and investments for mass production, as well as to match their costs with modern tiling solutions. Akon is even planning to feature the innovation in his upcoming video “Tell Me We’re OK” to tell youngsters that they can too help them create a better world.

"I believe that we will change the way people see energy as we begin to scale and fully industrialize the Pavegen technology," said Kemball-Cook.